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Many people throughout the pandemic have not been paying rent. That's due to eviction moratoriums that were in place so landlords could not throw people out for not paying rent. And now some of those landlords are finding out even though Congress approved billions of dollars for rental assistance money, they cannot get any of that money back. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: About 10 years ago, Nitin Bajaj and his wife were starting a family and looking to buy a house. They had emigrated from Mumbai, India, to Los Angeles. Money was tight, but luckily he found the perfect place.
NITIN BAJAJ: It had a lot of deferred maintenance. The garage doors were busted in.
ARNOLD: OK. It was a fixer-upper. There was an abandoned van in the yard. Also it wasn't a regular house. It was a small building with four apartments. So the couple could live in one and rent out the other apartments to help pay the mortgage. His wife Nimisha Lotia was a bit skeptical.
NIMISHA LOTIA: I was like, are you sure this is what we want to get? And he was like, trust me on this. This is going to be good for us.
ARNOLD: And over the years, they've slowly turned it into a nice home - painted it, replaced all 42 of the windows. And just before the pandemic, they rented to two young women.
LOTIA: We gave them a tour of the apartment, and they were really nice to talk to.
BAJAJ: Yeah. They were in their late 20s, and they had told us that they wanted to be a part of our family and stuff like that.
ARNOLD: But as soon as the pandemic hit, the new renters stopped paying the rent. Nimisha says the young women sent them an email saying that COVID had created a financial hardship and pointing out that the city had just imposed an eviction ban.
LOTIA: No further explanation, no calls or nothing - just an email and I think a snapshot of what the city rule was.
ARNOLD: She's not sure if the renters lost their jobs or not. But things started to get weird after that. The renters stopped talking to them on their way in and out of the house.
BAJAJ: You know, they didn't make eye contact.
ARNOLD: So that went on for a few weeks.
LOTIA: Then I lost my job due to COVID. And that was a major hit as well because there were two streams of income that had just stopped coming in.
ARNOLD: Nitin works for an education nonprofit and living just on his income was tough. So the couple rented out their own home, the apartment where they live, and they moved 80 miles away to a much cheaper house out in the desert. Nimisha says their kids couldn't even go outside because it was so hot.
LOTIA: They were very angry with us because they're just 9 and 11. So leaving their friends, their life just completely changed like upside down within a couple weeks.
ARNOLD: Around the country, millions of Americans had lost their jobs and many fell behind on rent. Pressure grew for Congress to help. And last December, lawmakers passed billions of dollars in emergency rental assistance. This was money to pay back rent, and that would help landlords, too.
BAJAJ: So it was great to hear, and I started looking for information.
ARNOLD: Meanwhile, the renters still were not paying rent. And they had lots of complaints. They even called the city inspector because they didn't like how the new dishwasher was working.
LOTIA: I was just appalled, and I was like, seriously?
ARNOLD: Eventually, this past spring, the rental assistance program in Los Angeles got up and running. Nitin says he was told, though, that the renters needed to supply some documents.
BAJAJ: So we reached out to the tenants and said, hey, could you guys please do that? And they just - they would just not talk.
ARNOLD: Finally, in July, the renters left unexpectedly and in the middle of the night. And they must have had a pretty big truck because when they moved out, the couple says they stole some rather large objects. Nimisha remembers walking through the apartment the morning after they left.
LOTIA: And when I reached the kitchen, I noticed, why does this look so open, like, empty? And then I realized, oh, the fridge is missing. Then, oh, my God, the other appliances are missing.
ARNOLD: They took the gas stove, even the dishwasher that they had complained to the city about. On top of all that, the couple was out $32,000 in back rent that the young women still owed. So they've been calling the city rental assistance program trying to get reimbursed for that.
BAJAJ: We spoke to 17 different agents, two supervisors. It was very frustrating to not get any kind of answer.
ARNOLD: Eventually, they were told that they couldn't get any help because for landlords to get paid, renters need to cooperate with the program. And across the country, that is the rule. Noel Andres Poyo is a deputy treasury secretary. He says allowing landlords to get help without the renter's cooperation, that's a difficult thing to do and still stay within the rules that Congress laid out.
NOEL ANDRES POYO: And right now, Congress is engaged in a process of looking at the original legislation and whether some updates can or should be made precisely around some of these issues that you're bringing up.
ARNOLD: Also nobody wants landlords to just be able to evict lots of people and then go collect the back rent. But Congress or Treasury might soon come up with a workaround for landlords like Nitin and Nimisha. Nimisha says since the government imposed these eviction bans, it's only fair that landlords in a situation like theirs be able to get some of this money from Congress.
LOTIA: You just cannot be black and white like we're not just going to help the landlords at all.
ARNOLD: Meanwhile, the couple is hoping one way or another they can recoup the $32,000 in back rent, which would definitely help them buy a new refrigerator for their rental unit.
Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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